The Global Sustainability Fellows Program


Another dispatch from Lee Frankel-Goldwater:

During the second half of the Global Sustainability Fellows Program’s pilot session, the group found itself at EARTH La Flor, for the fieldwork and community development portion of the program. They enjoyed a wildly different climate there than the one at the EARTH campus in Limón: this “Tropical Dry Forest” is a more temperate region, found on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, in contrast to the “Tropical Rainforest” on the Caribbean side. Here, we encountered mango trees and palms, feasted on by a variety of monkeys, as well as a plethora of bird, lizard, and insect species found in few other places on earth. Whereas perpetual rain was the norm in Limón, a common feature of the wet season; La Flor was filled with warm, sunny days, and peaceful, starry nights.

Our journey in this portion of the program was by far the most challenging, as fellows faced the real, on-the-ground challenges of sustainable community development. After a night’s rest, our first full day in Guanacaste introduced us to families in the village of Martina Bustos, a community of Nicaraguan migrant workers who have fled rougher conditions in their home country seeking better opportunities in Costa Rica.



We spent the morning in small groups, visiting homes of community members and listening to different perspectives on life in Martina Bustos, interviewing diverse segments of society, from local leaders, mothers of small children, elderly community members, and others. Our task was to ask questions and listen, to observe as much as we could in order to gain perspective on what it was really like to live in Martina Bustos. This data would be the raw material for our Community Presentation, to be delivered at the end of the week, alongside a Sustainable Development Plan.

When the group convened for lunch, we found that everyone was full of even more questions than they had started with, and eager for the next part of the day: a discussion with local leaders in the town meeting center, which itself was a small structure that had been decorated by children during the afterschool programs sometimes held there.

Martina Bustos5

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<p>Through the course of the long meeting, with the help of our Spanish-speaking fellows, we learned that Martina Bustos faces a major land rights issue, which is preventing them from getting much-needed municipal services. There is little support from the local government towards the community’s basic infrastructural needs and little resources available for the people to address these issues themselves. In addition, we learned that the community had serious concerns around water quality and access, and that there was no local primary school for the benefit of the younger students in the area. That evening, fellows broke themselves up into action groups, based on The Lab’s Five Domains of Sustainability, and prepared for tomorrow’s community walk-through.</p>
<p>In the morning, fellows went door-to-door, meeting the community members, discussing their lives, meeting their families, and asking questions. Some groups visited local churches, some met with the craftswomen of a local woman’s group. Those with less Spanish language skills made sure to stay close to translators and native speakers, to make sure they stayed engaged with the process. Our goal was to take the short time we had to get the best and most complete possible picture of the community, to thereby determine possible areas of engagement. Fellows openly discussed the dangers of developmental intervention from the outside, taking care to remind one another that these are real people, in a genuinely challenged community, and that fellows would have to be careful about creating false hopes. We knew there was great responsibility in the looming decisions of what initiatives we would suggest, what help we could offered, and what could realistically be done in the short time available.</p>
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The result of the week’s work was outstanding, and a testament to the amazing group of students gathered for this year’s GSF. Over the course of the next few days, fellows were pressed to self-organize, making tough decisions about how to channel their efforts towards a productive outcome, manage the opinions, desires, contributions and skill-sets of a group of 20, and present their conclusions to community members in the last days of the program.

One group of fellows pulled together an empowerment workshop mid-week, before the main presentation, for a women’s leadership group that seemed to be the main source of community initiative in Martina Bustos. This was an impromptu event created and implemented entirely by the fellows on the ground, in response to the perceived need of the community. Many of the women brought their children, who were cared for by members of the fellows group, to allow their parents to participate in the workshop. The women did several exercises to build their common vision for Martina Bustos, their sense of group cohesion, and their sense of empowerment within the community.


In parallel, other groups focused on research and development of different components of the upcoming presentation, which they had since decided would be focused in four areas: economic development, education, infrastructure, and mechanisms for self-governance. These points were drawn from the outcomes of the mid-week workshop, and adopted in order to echo the vision and desires expressed by the community. This was an explicit goal of the fellows group: not to tell anyone what to do, or to do things for them, but to lend insight and support in empowering a struggling population to do what they want to do for themselves.

GSF Group Work1


Though pulled together quickly, the final presentation was a great success. A few dozen community members attended the morning event and afternoon workshop at EARTH La Flor. Most were vocal about their alignment with, and enthusiasm for, the ideas presented by the fellows group, and were emboldened by the synthesis of their vision into an action plan. What’s more, it was clear that most attendees had never had the opportunity to sit together in such a context to go over these issues together—that due to a lack of organization and trust, many of these active members of the community, from individuals in women’s groups to employees at local NGOs, had never actually spoken to one another. The fellows were aware that their efforts were just the start of a much longer process, and planned to discuss and nail down “next steps” towards the goal of a community-centered, actionable Sustainable Development Plan in the coming weeks. (Of course, we’ll keep you posted.)



The evening after the final presentation was spent in town, by the beach, in a bit of repose and appreciation for a challenging, but rewarding few weeks. This year’s program was a pilot, in itself an experiment in line with The Lab’s goal to push the envelope of what’s possible in the field of sustainability and community development. Through the process, lessons were learned by all: fellows, faculty, The Lab itself, and a struggling community that was able to connect a few useful pieces of their own very challenging puzzle.

Currently, after a heartfelt goodbye and re-dispersal to locations around the world, fellows are working remotely to finalize a report for use in aiding continuing community progress and growth, following up with the community, seeking funding for plan implementation, and assisting EARTH and The Lab to highlight the efforts of this exceptional group.

It’s been a pleasure, and this was just the beginning.


From Costa Rica,

Lee Frankel-Goldwater and The GSF Staff

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